This is it: 400 miles to a Sprint Cup championship

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Every time a NASCAR season begins in earnest with those “Preseason Thunder” test sessions at Daytona, the end of the line in November – the Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami – seems so far away.

But here we are again, ready to see the coronation of another Sprint Cup champion while simultaneously wondering how in the blue heck time went by so fast.

Today is the day. Only 400 miles separate either Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick from the Cup, and while Johnson has the distinct advantage of being on top of the championship by 28 points going into today’s race, so much can happen as it plays out. Nothing’s impossible.

Improbable? Maybe. Unlikely? Perhaps. But never impossible.

For Johnson, today could be a day for more history, a day to further bolster his legacy as one of the all-time legends of the sport. He’s never won at Homestead, but when he’s hit the 1.5-mile oval with the championship lead, he’s always been able to take care of business. Four times he’s walked in as the leader, and four times he’s walked out as the champion.

One of these days, we’ll look back on his and Hendrick Motorsports’ run of dominance and be glad that we were there to see something that memorable.

Then there’s Kenseth, whose career has come back to life in a big way with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Win or lose today, he and the No. 20 bunch can be very proud of their accomplishments in 2013.

But should Johnson come undone somehow, he could be in position to deliver one of the most shocking upsets in NASCAR history and earn his second Cup title (and his first in the current Chase format that many believed he helped create after claiming his first title in 2003).

Finally, there’s Harvick, who today closes out a memorable run at Richard Childress Racing that saw him and the team go through several tough times. 13 years after taking up the incredible challenge of replacing the late Dale Earnhardt, Harvick has become part of NASCAR’s nucleus.

He and his No. 29 team have kept things light in regards to the championship, having mentioned that their only chance to beat Johnson is to lock him in a port-a-potty. But as long as they’re still in it, they’ll give it their best shot. It’s what they demand of themselves, every week.

What will we see today? Five-Time getting the Six-Pack? Kenseth claiming his inaugural “Chase era” crown? Or Harvick giving RCR a title on his way out the door? Regardless of the outcome, we’ll bear witness to something pretty special.

In the dead of winter, you never think about this day in November. And then, suddenly, as if only a few moments had passed instead of ten months, the day arrives.

And you just shake your head and smile.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”